09/24/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Parks for Preventive Health Care?

Parks are always important and even more important in tough economic times. A new poll points to increasing demand for parks and playgrounds during the current recession, underscoring the importance of parks to families, cities, and human health. While logic might dictate that park funding should be cut in hard times, just the opposite is true. Parks offer recreation that is inexpensive, egalitarian, great for families, available to all, and even more valuable in times like these than in boom times.

At the end of July The Trust for Public Land (TPL) engaged Harris Interactive to conduct a poll of park users, asking if during this period of economic difficulty, have they changed how much they make use of public parks and playgrounds? One fifth of Americans and as many as 38 percent of families with children have increased their visits to parks and playgrounds. Only seven percent of respondents reported a drop-off in their park use.

These results come as a little-noticed provision in proposed federal health care legislation would provide billions for park infrastructure improvements. The health benefits of parks are well established, especially when parks are easily accessible and well-maintained.

Some new parks even offer the type of exercise equipment found in expensive health clubs -- a real benefit in a down economy when it may be difficult to afford a gym membership. Over the last few years, TPL has helped to create 10 such Fitness Zones in Los Angeles parks. A new one in the South Whittier neighborhood was dedicated this month.

Increasingly cities are creating new parks and playgrounds as part of comprehensive planning strategies, as anchors for economic development, and -- in my mind the best reason -- to provide a little breathing space and nature in neighborhoods that are lacking safe, close-to-home places to play.

By directly linking park improvements with health care, congressional legislators are signaling their understanding that health care reform cannot happen in a vacuum and must include strategies to encourage healthy lifestyles. An investment in parks and playgrounds--especially local parks and especially in cities where eighty percent of Americans live -- is one of the best ways to do this.

The Obama Administration recently signaled its keen interest in the role parks play in healthier lives in our cities by sending David Agnew, Deputy Director of Intergovernmental Affairs, to the opening of a new TPL-developed park in Newark. "Access to clean, healthy parks is a right, not a privilege, and an absolutely critical component to building livable communities," Mr. Agnew said at the dedication for Nat Turner Park, now Newark's largest city-owned park.

With the Labor Day weekend approaching, families are planning the summer's last retreat to a park, beach, or wilderness area. It's great news that these places we enjoy with our families are getting the healthy attention -- and potentially the investment--they deserve.